A key contributor to stagnation could be a growing reluctance to take risk. All creation involves risk, because when embarking on the journey you rarely know the result. As Paul Graham said, you might fear creating something “lame”.
As society develops, it could become less attractive to take risk. For example, if you are musically inclined, learning and performing the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Wagner may deliver more instant rewards then creating your own musical forms. There is a large audience for the renowned, little for the unknown. In addition, someone like J.S. Bach could focus more on writing music, because he didn’t have any of those four composers to listen to, and couldn’t be paid for performing their works.
Similarly, as wealth grows, more people are employed to manage it. In a society with little wealth, financiers are few as there are fewer assets to trade. The mathematicians and engineers who become quants in our current age would actually have done maths and engineering in a poorer one.
These are two particular instances of a general problem whereby established paths are less risky and therefore more attractive than novel ones.
But without risk, no one will come up with new paradigms of knowledge and organisation. We need people to take risk to ward off stagnation. How can we encourage people to do so?
A potential answer to this question emerged in a conversation between Jim Rutt and Joscha Bach. Rutt cited a psychological experiment (Dutton and Aron, 1974) whereby those who just walked across a dangerous bridge were more likely to arrange a date with a member of the opposite sex immediately afterwards than those who walked over a safer bridge. The implication in the discussion is that doing something risky raises your willingness to take more risk.
In fact, Dutton and Arron state that this behaviour probably arises from what is known as the “Misattribution of Arousal”. Essentially, going over a dangerous bridge induces physiological arousal, which the participant mistakes for romantic arousal. According to Allen et al., this effect even holds when someone is aware that the main source of arousal is non-romantic in nature.
Music can also induce physiological arousal: another study finds that women, but not men, were more likely to rate a man as attractive after listening to music. Interestingly, the study notes that “high-arousing, complex music yielded the largest effects”. If excitation-transfer theory holds, the same dynamic would probably apply to exercise.
This may be interesting if one wants to raise the number of couples in society. But is there a link to risk-taking in areas such as business, politics and academia? There is some evidence that becoming aware of the neutral nature of arousal can boost confidence, and therefore also risk-taking, at least in the short-term. For example, one study says that arousal is just part of “gearing up” to do a task, and that this feeling is often wrongly attributed to diminished confidence. From the abstract (my emphasis):
“People’s confidence that they will do well tends to diminish as the “moment of truth” draws near. We propose that this phenomenon stems in part from individuals using their pre-task arousal as a cue to their level of confidence. Arousal that is part and parcel of “gearing up” to perform a task may be misattributed to diminished confidence… Participants in two experiments who were encouraged to misattribute their arousal to a neutral source (“subliminal noise”) expressed greater confidence in their ability than did participants not able to do so”
In this abstract, we have found what we are looking for, and it’s slightly better than our starting point as it is much easier to attribute arousal to a normal part of doing a task than it is to find a dangerous bridge to walk across. In practice, this would be useful on a short-term horizon. For example, if you are an entrepreneur about to approach a potential customer or pitch to investors, you should attribute any nervousness to just part of doing a novel task rather than interpreting it as a sign you are about to do the coming task poorly. That could increase your confidence and reduce the probability you will abandon the effort.
Framing nervousness in this way may help people to take risk. But of course, taking a risk does not mean that it will always be successful.